When it comes to fuel economy standards, there is no single accepted procedure for arriving at the miles-per-gallon targets that automakers must hit. Rather, analysts use any of multiple parameters and tactics to calculate the potential economic and environmental impacts of fuel efficiency levels.
So when James Sallee, an assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics, first saw that the Obama-era standards had flunked the current administration’s 2018 cost-benefit analysis—which was subsequently used as justification for rolling back the stricter standards—he didn’t think much of it. Analysts had correctly referenced some of his published research findings, and they were working with an ambiguous process.
After digging into the analysis further, however, Sallee went on to co-write, with 10 academic colleagues, a commentary in Science that raises serious questions about the scientific validity of the proposed rule change. That’s because the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—the agencies that govern fuel standards—arrived at a completely different conclusion from their predecessors’ using exactly the same data.
“So we wanted to know, what’s the difference?” Sallee said. “When we dove into how they changed the model, we disagreed with almost all of the ways the major changes were implemented.” The team uncovered mistakes in math and in the application of economic theory.
Because of errors like those as well as other actions—such as the abandonment of the Paris Agreement and the Clean Power Plan—Sallee noted, scientists are increasingly concerned about a perceived sidelining of science in the Trump administration’s decision-making processes. “It’s unambiguously distressing. In the long run, that’s the biggest concern, rather than any individual policy.”
Sallee said that the real litmus test will be whether federal analysts address the errors. If they don’t, he added, the Science article forms part of a “trail of concern”—formal scientific objections that could potentially be used by future leadership to revoke the current policy decisions.
— Anne Brody Guy